Coarctation of the aorta

About coarctation of the aorta | Causes | Why a concern? | Symptoms | Diagnosis | Treatment | Long-term outlook

What is coarctation of the aorta?  

Coarctation of the aorta is a congenital (present at birth) heart defect involving a narrowing of the aorta, which is the large artery that carries oxygen-rich (red) blood to the body. Also called aortic coarctation, or narrowing of the aorta, the condition makes the heart pump harder to get blood to pass through the narrowed section.

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Successful treatment for coarctation of the aorta is highly achievable, but it requires individualized, expert care once detected, and dedicated management throughout life. Depending on how narrowed the aorta is, coarctation of the aorta symptoms can be mild to severe and are usually corrected with surgery. It is often linked to other heart defects, and mild cases of coarctation of the aorta may not surface until adulthood.

The Herma Heart Institute’s pediatric cardiologists and heart surgeons have extensive experience in treating the full range of patients with aortic coarctation and offer exceptional outcomes for patients who require surgery. As of the latest STS report shown below, our survival rate for coarctation of the aorta is 100% — two percent higher than the national aggregate. 

The Herma Heart Institute consistently achieves outstanding outcomes for congenital heart surgery for even the most complex types of heart disease. Learn more about our heart surgery outcomes.
Coarctation of aorta repair surgery

Note: Data is provided from the Society of Thoracic Surgeons (STS). New data is not available beyond June 2019, as STS is in the process of refining their reporting methodologies. Hospitals are also limited in providing updated data due to the demands of the COVID-19 pandemic.

What does coarctation of the aorta mean?

A diagram of a normal heart.

The aorta is shaped like a candy cane, with the first section moving up towards the head (ascending aorta), then curving in a C-shape as smaller arteries that are attached to it carry blood to the head and arms (aortic arch). After the curve, the aorta becomes straight again, and moves downward towards the abdomen, carrying blood to the lower part of the body (descending aorta).

What causes coarctation of the aorta?

The cause of coarctation of the aorta varies. Some congenital heart defects may have a genetic link, either occurring due to a defect in a gene, a chromosome abnormality, or environmental exposure, causing heart problems to occur more often in certain families. Most of the time this heart defect occurs sporadically (by chance), with no clear reason for its development.

Why is coarctation of the aorta a concern?

Coarctation of the aorta can cause several problems, including the following:
  • The left ventricle has to work harder to try to move blood through the narrowing in the aorta. Eventually, the left ventricle is no longer able to handle the extra workload, and it fails to pump blood to the body efficiently.
  • Blood pressure is higher above the narrowing, and lower below the narrowing. Older children may have headaches from too much pressure in the vessels in the head, or cramps in the legs or abdomen from too little blood flow in that region. Also, the kidneys may not make enough urine since they require a certain amount of blood flow and a certain blood pressure to perform this task.
  • The walls of the ascending aorta, the aortic arch, or any of the arteries in the head and arms may become weakened by high pressure. Spontaneous tears in any of these arteries can occur, which can cause a stroke or uncontrollable bleeding.
  • There is a higher than average chance of developing an infection in the lining of the heart or aorta known as bacterial endocarditis.
  • The coronary arteries, which supply oxygen-rich (red) blood to the heart muscle, may narrow in response to elevated pressure.

Anatomy of heart with coarctation of aorta.

What are the symptoms of coarctation of the aorta?

Coarctation of the aorta symptoms are caused by moderate to severe narrowing of the aorta. Each child may experience symptoms differently, and only about 25% of cases have symptoms that are present immediately after birth. The following are the most common coarctation of the aorta symptoms:

  • Irritability
  • Pale skin
  • Sweating
  • Heavy and/or rapid breathing
  • Poor feeding
  • Poor weight gain

Mild narrowing of the aorta may not cause symptoms at all. Often in these cases, a school-aged child or adolescent is simply noted to have high blood pressure or a heart murmur on a physical examination. Some may complain of headaches or cramps in the lower sections of the body.

The symptoms of coarctation of the aorta may resemble other medical conditions or heart problems. Always consult your child's physician for a diagnosis.

How is coarctation of the aorta diagnosed?

Chest x-rayYour child's physician may have heard a heart murmur during a physical examination, and referred your child to a pediatric cardiologist for a diagnosis. A heart murmur is simply a noise caused by the turbulence of blood flowing through the obstruction from the right ventricle to the pulmonary artery. Symptoms your child exhibits will also help with the diagnosis.

Echocardiogram (ECHO)A pediatric cardiologist specializes in the diagnosis and medical management of congenital heart defects, as well as heart problems that may develop later in childhood. The cardiologist will perform a physical examination, listening to your child's heart and lungs, and make other observations that help in the diagnosis. The location within the chest that the murmur is heard best, as well as the loudness and quality of the murmur (harsh, blowing, etc.) will give the cardiologist an initial idea of which heart problem your child may have. However, other tests are needed to help with the diagnosis, and may include the following:

  • Chest x-ray - diagnostic test which uses invisible electromagnetic energy beams to produce images of internal tissues, bones, and organs onto film.
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) - a test that records the electrical activity of the heart, shows abnormal rhythms (arrhythmias or dysrhythmias), and detects heart muscle damage.
  • Echocardiogram (echo) - a procedure that evaluates the structure and function of the heart by using sound waves recorded on an electronic sensor that produce a moving picture of the heart and heart valves.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scannerMagnetic resonance imaging (MRI) - a diagnostic procedure that uses a combination of large magnets, radio frequencies, and a computer to produce detailed images of organs and structures within the body. 

What coarctation of the aorta treatments are available?

Specific treatment for coarctation of the aorta will be determined by your child's physician based on:

  • Your child's age, overall health, and medical history
  • Extent of the disease
  • Your child's tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • Expectations for the course of the defect
  • Your opinion or preference

Coarctation of the aorta is treated with repair of the narrowed vessel. Several options are currently available.

Your child's coarctation of the aorta may be repaired surgically in an operating room or by a cardiac catheterization procedure. The surgical repair is performed under general anesthesia. The narrowed area is either surgically removed, or made larger with the help of surrounding structures or a patch.

The cardiac catheterization procedure may also be an option for treatment. During the procedure, the child is sedated and a small, thin, flexible tube (catheter) is inserted into a blood vessel in the groin and guided to the inside of the heart. Once the catheter is in the heart, the cardiologist will pass an inflated balloon through the narrowed section of the aorta to stretch the area open. A small device, called a stent, may also be placed in the narrowed area after the balloon dilation to keep the aorta open.

When treating coarctation of the aorta in infants, some will be very sick and require care in the intensive care unit (ICU) prior to the procedure, and could possibly even need emergency repair of the coarctation. Others, who are exhibiting few symptoms, will have the repair scheduled on a less urgent basis.

After surgery, infants will return to the intensive care unit (ICU) to be closely monitored during recovery.

While your child is in the ICU, special equipment will be used to help him/her recover, and may include the following:

  • Ventilator - a machine that helps your child breathe while he/she is under anesthesia during the operation. A small, plastic tube is guided into the windpipe and attached to the ventilator, which breathes for your child while he/she is too sleepy to breathe effectively on his/her own. Many children remain on the ventilator for a while after surgery so they can rest.
  • Intravenous (IV) catheters - small, plastic tubes inserted through the skin into blood vessels to provide IV fluids and important medicines that help your child recover from the operation.
  • Arterial line - a specialized IV placed in the wrist, or other area of the body where a pulse can be felt, that measures blood pressure continuously during surgery and while your child is in the ICU.
  • Nasogastric (NG) tube - a small, flexible tube that keeps the stomach drained of acid and gas bubbles that may build up during surgery.
  • Urinary catheter - a small, flexible tube that allows urine to drain out of the bladder and accurately measures how much urine the body makes, which helps determine how well the heart is functioning. After surgery, the heart will be a little weaker than it was before, and, therefore, the body may start to hold onto fluid, causing swelling and puffiness. Diuretics may be given to help the kidneys to remove excess fluid from the body.
  • Chest tube - a drainage tube will be inserted to keep the chest free of blood that would otherwise accumulate after the incision is closed. Bleeding may occur for several hours, or even a few days after surgery.
  • Heart monitor - a machine that constantly displays a picture of your child's heart rhythm, and monitors heart rate, arterial blood pressure, and other values. 

Your child may need other equipment not mentioned here to provide support while in the ICU, or afterwards. The hospital staff will explain all of the necessary equipment to you.

Your child will be kept as comfortable as possible with several different medications; some which relieve pain, and some which relieve anxiety. The staff will also be asking for your input as to how best to soothe and comfort your child.

After being discharged from the ICU, your child will recuperate on another hospital unit for a few days before going home. You will learn how to care for your child at home before your child is discharged. Your child may need to take medications for a while, and these will be explained to you. The staff will give you instructions regarding medications, activity limitations, and follow-up appointments before your child is discharged.


Preparing for an appointment related to coarctation of the aorta

For some families, it can be helpful to prepare with a plan in advance of your child’s appointment with a cardiologist. Here are things to consider documenting and having ready for your appointment:

  • Coarctation of the aorta symptoms your child is experiencing - These symptoms can be the initial reasons for why you scheduled an appointment. Sharing when these symptoms appeared to how frequent they occur is also helpful to the medical team. Don’t be afraid to share symptoms that seem unrelated – congenital heart disease can affect other parts of the body, so it is helpful to share a full picture. 
  • Medications - This should also include any supplements or vitamins your child takes.
  • Related history - This can family medical history, and recent changes in your family’s life. It is important to know if your family has a history of congenital (present at birth) heart disease. The cardiologist may also ask questions about the pregnancy, as many heart defects develop in utero.
  • Your questions - This will help ensure you don’t forget to ask all of your questions. Be sure to leave room for you to write notes and answers from the cardiologist during the appointment.
    • For specific questions about a heart center, consider using Conquering CHD’s Guided Questions Tool. The Herma Heart Institute proactively provides answers to these questions online. You are welcomed and encouraged to ask follow-up questions on our answers at any time. 
    • It is okay to ask the same question several times if you are unclear. Our team is here to help you understand the big picture and make sure you walk away with your questions answered.

Long-term outlook after coarctation of the aorta surgical repair

Once the aorta is repaired, most symptoms will disappear quickly because the narrowing is gone. Most children who have had a coarctation of the aorta surgical repair will live healthy lives. Activity levels, appetite, and growth should eventually return to normal. Read Alex's journey with coarctation of the aorta.

As your child grows, coarctation of the aorta may occasionally occur again. If this happens, a balloon procedure or operation may be necessary to repair the coarctation.

Your child's cardiologist may recommend that antibiotics be given to prevent bacterial endocarditis after discharge from the hospital. Instructions may also be given on the appropriate level of physical activity. Consult your child's physician regarding the specific outlook for your child.

Choosing a heart hospital?

A young boy being tested for potential pediatrics heart conditions. He is holding his arms up and smiling.

Find tips for deciding whom to trust with your child’s heart surgery in a blog written by Peter Frommelt, MD, pediatric cardiologist and professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

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